alexandra alger


Archive for the tag “Neil Gaiman”

Fictional Naming, Take 2

Going back to my last post on names. To clarify: From the reader’s point of view—or at least this reader’s point of view—names may or may not matter. But to writers—”there’s a magic to names, after all,” Neil Gaiman wrote in “All Books Have Genders” in his collection of essays, The View from the Cheap Seats.

I’m chewing on names for a 12-year-old character’s identical twin sister. I’ve started with the parents, of course. I feel for them. Young and poor, they’re expecting two babies instead of one (in a not exactly planned pregnancy). What are those names going to be? It’s hard enough agreeing on one name, for most people, or at least some people, or at least Dan and me. We liked exactly one name for our son—Davison, a family name on my side. Dan nixed my ideas—Lucas and Russell—and I loathed his top choice, Ayrton, after the race-car driver. (Ayrton—for crying out loud!) We would’ve been in a pretty pickle if we’d had twins (completely within the realm of possibility given I’m a twin, his sisters are fraternal twins, and one of them went on to give birth to a set of identical twins).

This is what I’ve come up with for my young, poor fictional parents. The mother comes up with one, somewhat fanciful, somewhat old-fashioned name; and the father, a name that belonged to his grandmother. And miraculously (I’m a kind creator) they are delighted with each other’s choice.

Oh, and very key to the baby naming: my young mother doesn’t have to defend her choice to her own mother, who died in a car accident several years earlier. (Yes, I killed her off. But she might pop up as a ghost toward the end.) Even if she’d been alive, she would’ve have been as mean as some mothers are about their offsprings’ ideas on baby names. My mother, for instance, had this to say about my sister’s choice of name for her son: “Elijah? You mean, like Elijah Blue, Cher’s son?” It may not be clear to an outsider why this comment could have such an effect—suffice to say my sister ended up naming her child Griffin.

Gaiman wrote whimsically about trying out names for a character in his American Gods. “I tried calling him Lazy, but he didn’t seem to like that, and I called him Jack and he didn’t like that any better. I took to trying every name I ran into on him for size, and he looked back at me from somewhere in my head unimpressed every time. It was like trying to name Rumpelstilskin.” What did he settle on? Shadow, from an Elvis Castello song. (Jack, he’d come back to—for The Graveyard Book, possibly my favorite Gaiman work.)

Two rules on naming I take to heart.

  1. Avoid names belonging to the protagonists of famous authors—or better yet, famous protagonists of famous authors. Why court unfavorable comparisons?

2. Check the name online. If there’s anyone even remotely famous–has a Wiki bio, for     instance–move on.  I thought of this today, reading the New Yorker. I came upon the name of a corporate executive named Duke Stump. What a name. Almost as resonant as Trump.

Trump….don’t get me started.



Favorite Fictional Orphans

I’m creating a character who’s parentless, a modern-day orphan. Her role models aren’t actual, real orphans (I don’t know any of those, a fortunate thing) but the long line of memorable fictional ones.

As a child I always cleaved to the orphans. Not because they’re free of parental constraints–just the opposite! I got heart palpitations at the thought of complete freedom from parents (no doubt because my parents were insanely controlling). That’s why I had to keep reading. I had to make sure these poor orphans were going to be all right.

Who are my favorite orphans? I know I’m forgetting a few, but this is a good start. In no particular order:

James, James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl (as if there is any doubt who authored this). I wanted to reach into the book and hug James—and then adopt him. Who could not root for James, whose parents die in a freakish accident and who is forced to live with his horrible (if deliciously horrible) aunts before having the most extraordinary adventure (practically) in all of children’s literature?

Anne, Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. I loved Anne’s hot temper, being a hot-tempered redhead myself (and not recognizing a tired cliche). I loved her soulfulness, and her way with words. Of course, Gilbert kept me reading, too. Lucy Maud was clever to give Anne such an appealing antagonist.

Mary, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet). I didn’t like Mary, or this book, for many years. Mary was such a sourpuss! In that heartless way of children, I refused to give her break for being an orphan and alone in a strange, nearly empty house (these English and the way they ignored children!). But she grew on me, especially when she straightened out her whiny, self-pitying cousin, Colin.

Silvia and Bonnie, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken. Bonnie isn’t an orphan at first, but for most of the book her parents are missing and presumed dead, so as far as I was concerned, this was the story of two plucky orphans. What these two have to endure! When Bonnie’s parents go on a long trip, they leave the girls in the hands of a cousin, who turns out to be an imposter, an evil woman who takes over the house and sends the girls to an orphanage. How are the girls to escape—and to where? I read breathlessly.

Bod, The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. Bod, short for Nobody, is anything but. He’s the kind of boy a girl can’t help liking—the kind of boy who would try to figure out a way to provide a headstone for a witch who was both drowned and burned. He has all kinds of ograveyard skills, like Fading and Dreamwalking, and is clever enough to take down the man who killed his parents. Which reminds me of someone else….

Harry Potter, of course, the most famous orphan of all time (sorry, Oliver Twist and Huck Finn). He’s the only character on this list whose quest is rooted in the brutal murder of his parents. He learns more about his dead parents than most orphans do, and with knowledge comes pain and regret. James and Lily Potter may be the only fictional parents whose loss I actively mourned.

My character will come to mourn hers, but she’ll also find unexpected joy. I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

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